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Day 5: Ariaú Towers, Rio Negro

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Swimming with the pink river dolphin. He's rather more interested in the sardine.
Michael Palin - BrazilFor fifteen minutes or more I rub along with dolphins, until the bait runs out and they swim slowly away. When we're back in the boat Gabriel tells me that the pink dolphin plays a very important part in the folklore of the Amazon villages. At party times, when there is drinking and dancing, he is believed to swim up to the village and, taking human form, impregnate the local girls, before disappearing as the daylight comes. I'm all for local legend, but blaming it on the dolphins is such a blatant cover story. I check with Gabriel and no, he's never seen a half-dolphin child.

We carry on up the river to a more substantial floating platform on which Gabriel's parents have a shop and a small hotel. They're known as ribeirinhos – the small businessmen of the riverbank – and they live by fishing, growing fruit, gathering brazil nuts, running a small bar and shop and trying to attract eco-tourists. They've no guests at the moment and they're doing work on the rooms. Gabriel's mother makes us Amazon coffee and we sit and watch the world go by.

'There is no road here. The river is our road,' says Gabriel, and I think he's quite happy with that.

The Rio Negro is a clear and clean river without much alluvial content. It sustains 1,300 species of fish including twenty-five species of piranha. One's blood runs cold, or is it hot, at the very mention of piranha, but Gabriel reassures me that none of them are dangerous. Not here on the Rio Negro. And there are no mosquitoes here either, unlike on the Amazon. He likes this time of year (it's January) as the rains come and the river starts to fill. By June it will be the time of plenty for those who live off the rivers, as the levels will have risen by anything from ten to fifteen metres, creating a vast and fertile flood-plain called the várzea.

Every fifty years they have freak conditions. In 2009, the highest the river rose was twenty-nine metres, followed the year after by a drought.

The sound of outboard motors hums around us as small boats come up alongside. His father unloads two empty fuel drums which will be lowered down to give extra support for the platform. A lean and quietly dignified old man wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat ties up, waits patiently to collect supplies from the shop and steers his boat back across the stream to the far bank. The pace of life is gentle. The sunlight sparkling off the river makes me deliciously drowsy. I could stay here for ever.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 5: Ariaú Towers, Rio Negro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Ariaú Towers, Rio Negro
  • Book page no: 34

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